Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with US lawmakers to maintain military support for Ukraine on Thursday, as Republicans signalled that they would try to block a new funding package put forward by Joe Biden.
The Ukrainian president addressed senators in a private meeting on Capitol Hill, warning that his country would “lose the war” without US support, before meeting the US president in the White House.
His second visit to Washington since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion comes as Ukraine attempts to push through Russian defensive lines in the south and east as part of a major counteroffensive that Kyiv says requires more armaments from the West.
But despite Mr Zelensky’s pleas for more funding, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives opposes further US involvement in the war and has signalled they will vote down a proposed $24 billion (about £19 billion) package of fresh military and humanitarian aid.
As the Ukrainian leader arrived in Washington from New York, where he addressed the UN general assembly on Wednesday, a group of Republican congressmen wrote to Mr Biden to argue that US support had become an “open-ended commitment”.
They said it would be an “absurd abdication of congressional responsibility” to approve the latest package without a clear exit strategy from the conflict and audit of the effectiveness of US support so far.
Tim Burchett, who sits on the House foreign affairs committee, said: “I appreciate [Mr Zelensky’s] bravado and everything, but we don’t have any money. We’re broke, and we’re giving our money away.”
Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker, denied Mr Zelensky’s request to address the House and has called for “accountability” from Mr Biden on the cost of the war.
The conflict has become a wedge issue for Republicans running to replace Mr Biden in next November’s presidential election, with all three frontrunners in the opinion polls calling for a reduction in or outright cessation of support.
Donald Trump, who leads the polls by around 40 points, has pledged to bring the war to a swift end by brokering a negotiated truce between Mr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin.
There is still ‘strong bipartisan support’ for Kyiv
But in a show of continued support, Mr Biden’s administration on Thursday announced a new $325million package of weapons for Ukraine including “significant air defence capabilities”.
Welcoming Mr Zelensky to the White House, Mr Biden described Ukraine as a “partner” and said both countries stood for a “just and lasting peace” that “respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The Ukrainian president told his counterpart he had a “frank and constructive dialogue” with members of Congress but was thankful for “big, huge support”.
He stressed his requests for more military assistance would have a “special emphasis on air”.
The US president said the arms package would include M1 Abrams tanks, which will arrive in Ukraine “next week”.
Mr Zelensky was asked by a reporter whether he had any assurances from Congress on funding. Mr Biden answered for him, saying: “I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There’s no alternative.”
However, the White House stopped short of granting Kyiv’s request for ATACMS missiles, which can strike targets up to 300 kilometres (190 miles) away.
Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser, said he “continue[d] to remain of the view that when all is said and done... there will be strong bipartisan support to continue funding Ukraine”.
Emphasising the importance of unfaltering US backing, Mr Zelensky told reporters after a meeting with defence officials: “To win, we must stand together and win together.”
“We count on you, on your constant support,” he said.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said the Ukrainian leader had privately told senators: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”
Mike Turner, the chairman of the House select intelligence committee, said Mr Zelensky “gave us details on the offensive that were very positive and his long-term goals and objectives. People in the room appreciated and supported it”.
The push is aimed at splitting Russian forces in occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, severing the so-called “land bridge” linking Russia to the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
On Thursday, Ukrainian forces were reported to be operating armoured fighting vehicles behind Russian defensive fortifications including anti-tank ditches and dragon’s teeth in the southern Zaporizhzhia region for the first time.
The Institute for the Study of War described the apparent breach of the so-called Surovikin Line as a “significant inflection”, adding the “small tactical steps may be the start of a larger and more significant advance”.
The dispute over funding for Ukraine in Congress comes after a series of Republican concerns about high levels of spending by the federal government, and “woke” policies in the Pentagon including access to abortion for personnel in states where it is restricted.
In a vote on Thursday, the House voted down a separate funding bill for the Department of Defense, raising concerns of a federal government shutdown on Oct 1.